by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the major landmarks and destinations in the Pershing Square area of Los Angeles in the 1920s and still operating today is the Biltmore Hotel, which opened on 1 October 1923 at Olive Street and Fifth Street on the west side of the square. Designed by the architectural firm of Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver, who also handled such notable local projects as the Subway Terminal Building (now the Metro 417 lofts) and the Jonathan Club building, as well as New York’s famed Waldorf Astoria hotel, the Biltmore, costing about $10 million, was filled with stunning details including the abundant use of the marble and travertine, crystal chandeliers, cast bronze fixtures, tapestries and other elements, most notably a gorgeous fresco ceiling mural.
The Biltmore went on to host several Academy Award ceremonies, the first in 1931, was the headquarters for the Democratic National Convention at which John F. Kennedy secured his party’s nomination in 1960, and hosted the Beatles during the group’s first American tour four years later. It remains an iconic part of downtown with its triple towers and combination of Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival styles of architecture.
Constructed on the Fifth Street side of rear of the hotel was the Biltmore Theatre, which, unhappily, has not survived. Also designed by Schultze and Weaver with murals by the same Italian artist, John B. Smeraldi, who worked on the hotel, the theater started construction as the hotel was being completed and an arcade linked the two structures while the main entrance was at the corner of Fifth and Grand Avenue.
There were over 1,650 seats in the auditorium, which hosted live theatrical productions and had a screen for film showings, and the theater was part of the A.L. Erlanger theater circuit which included the Mason Opera House/Mason Theater on Broadway. Opening night was on this day, 3 March 1924, and the featured artifacts for this post include an original brass commemorative ticket from the Homestead’s collection, along with some recently acquired photographs of the building of the theatre and some details of the completed structure.
The opening night performance and which was engaged for two weeks was the stage play, Sally, a Florenz Ziegfeld production which opened on Broadway in New York four years before and included music by the legendary Jerome Kern and lyrics by Clifford Grey (though one contributor was P.G. Wodehouse. The star was Marilynn Miller, a popular stage performer during the Twenties who was married to Jack Pickford, brother of “America’s Sweetheart,” film star Mary Pickford.
Sally, which was about a dishwasher at a cheap inn who pretends to be a famous ballerina and joins the Ziegfeld Follies, finding love along the way, ran for 570 performances, one of the longest up to that time. Kern’s “Look for the Silver Lining” proved to be one of his most endearing pieces. A silent film version, starring the very popular Colleen Moore, was made in 1925, followed four years later by one of the first all-sound, all-color films and starred Miller.
Miller, while not appearing in the production (her role was played by Shirley Vernon), did have a box at the opening night performance along with Jack Pickford. Their coming to Los Angeles also had to do with motion pictures, as Pickford was returning to films after a year’s absence and Miller was to make her debut, although that did not happen until the sound version of Sally.
As to the opening, it was breathlessly covered by Los Angeles Times columnist Grace Kingsley, who gushed:
The Biltmore is a gem. Just one peep into this twinkling blue-and-gold fairyland of theaterdom last night, with its brilliant throngs, and we felt that we had at last caught up with ourselves theatrically, after having for several years, in true artist fashion, been merely dreaming of a new and elegantly appointed stage theater, while the picture magnates took all the honors for beautiful playhouses.
Yet, Kingsley, went on, that the theatre wasn’t just about “comfort and elegance, and beautiful productions.” She quoted the manager as stating that there would be long runs of eastern stage plays, despite the trek across the country, as would be seen in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia.
Returning to the opening, Kingsley enthused that “it looked at the opening of this playhouse as though every jewel in the city had decided to make a night of it.” She mentioned the “handsome foyer” and “the large, luxurious lounge and promenade above [the] stairs.” She approvingly noted that “the lighting is soft and restful, making youthful beauty more lovely, and softening the years on older feminine faces.
She added that there were, in a way, two shows simultaneously, as some notables in attendance were comedian Larry Semon, cowboy star Tom Mix, Charles Chaplin and his former leading lady Mabel Normand, among others. Kingsley had much to say about Marilynn Miller’s appearance and how she was “just too sweet for anything” in greeting Vernon. Kingsley averred that Miller was more happy with new hubby Pickford than in her career.
There was also mention of “the aristocrats” of Los Angeles who attended, including the Sartoris, the Flints, the Hellmans, the Tobermans, the Chandlers, the Baldwins, and others from the worlds of business, finance, media and more.
In addition, comedian Will Rogers delivered “one of his whimsical speeches” as he “presented the theater to the city”, joking that he was selected because he “was the only man whom the stain of oil had not touched.” He cracked that one of the two Jewish owners (Erlanger being one) was Joe Toplitzky, “the only man of his race around here who hasn’t had to take an Irish name for business purposes.”
Kingsley praised Irving Fisher “who won tremendous applause with his beautiful voice,” star Leon Errol’s physical comedy skills, Walter Catlett’s dancing and jokes, and Vernon’s dancing as highlights, concluding that “everybody in the cast is excellent, and the chorus is perfectly peachy.”
The photos include one of the theater during construction in November 1923, not long after the hotel opened for business, and lettering on the wood barrier along the Fifth Street sign mentions Toplitzky, while one on the Grand Avenue side stated the building was “erected to play the first class attractions of Europe and America.” A sign surmounting the corner where the entrance would be listed the name of the contractor, the Scofield Company.
Two photographs of details from the finished structure include one of a terrace with wide brick arches featuring decorative cast-iron rails, while the other focuses upon a door from the terrace to the theater and sporting some impressive figures in relief above the entrance, including cherubs, what look like dragons, and the head of what seems to be a Spanish conquistador.
Finally, there is the commemorative ticket, which lists Toplitzky and Erlanger as owners and Edward D. Smith as manager; gives the section, row and seat numbers on the first balcony; and adds that this inaugural performance ticket “may be retained as a souvenir.”
The Bilmore Theatre had a successful “roadshow run,” basically an exclusive showing for the city with special equipment and added programming that could last several hours, of the biblical epic Ben Hur in 1926 that was followed the following year with another for the World War I drama Wings. Some of the stars who appeared in live stage performance included George Arliss, Jeanne Engels, Frederick March and Bela Lugosi in “Dracula,” three years before the film version.
Erlanger ran the theater until the World War II years and it continued to operate until the mid-Sixties with its last stage performance starring Yvonne De Carlo, soon to star in the television comedy The Munsters and a young Alan Arkin. The building was destroyed in October 1964 to make way, as so many downtown structures did, for a parking lot. In the 1980s, however, a new addition to the Biltmore Hotel was built on the site.